Picture Books · Reading

Cornucopia: Picture Books for Autumn

It’s been a while since I’ve done a picture book blog, and since a-something like twenty of my former students had babies in the last year and b-I love fall, I’ve decided to collect some seasonal books that don’t have snowfolk or reindeer as protagonists.

  1. “Little Tree” by Loren Long. When all the trees are little, everything is great, but when fall comes, one won’t let his leaves fall because he’s afraid of the cold. The problem is that stunts his growth, and once he establishes the pattern of holding on to stuff too long, it’s hard to break. I feel personally called out by this picture book, so I love it and need to share.
  2. “Room on the Broom” by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler. This is such a great book: it’s Halloweeny, but just because the character is a witch. It’s mostly about finding your tribe and protecting your homies. And when your homies are all adorable critters, that’s awesome.
  3.  “John Pig’s Halloween” by Jan L. Waldron and David McPhail is the first Halloween book my son had, and we all loved it. I’m a sucker for good verse, and John overcomes his fear by making friends with monsters, so I feel like that is a win all around. The verse is so catchy we practically memorized the whole thing, and 18 years later, we still find ourselves using a line or two in conversation when it’s appropriate, which is more often than you’d think.
  4. “Thanks for Thanksgiving” by Julie Markes and Doris Barrette is our requisite Turkey Day book, in part because of the wonderful fall-toned illustrations that include wonderful family moments but also school and play. It also includes a blank page at the end for families to write in what they’re thankful for, which makes my Bullet Journaling heart happy. Train ‘em young, I say. You want them to read? Then read. You want them to be grateful? Then be grateful. And write that stuff down, so you can remember what it was like to be grateful for Thomas trains and Fairy Fudge.
  5. “The Giant Cabbage” by Chérie B. Stihler and Jeremiah Trammell. This one is adorably illustrated by Trammell and a sweet fable about coming together for a common purpose, then sharing in the fruits (or vegetables) of that labor. Fall is all about abundance, after all.
  6. “Persephone” by Sally Pomme Clayton and Virginia Lee, speaking of abundance… and what comes after the harvest.  This is a solid version of the myth of Persephone and her mom, about seasons and sorrows and cycles and the bond between life and death.
  7. “Georgie and the Robbers” by Robert Bright is not overtly a fall book, but it must take place in the fall, if one uses the illustrations as a guide. And since it’s about a ghost and an owl and a cat, it has an autumnal feel to it. It remains, after thousands of books, my very favorite book to read aloud. Part of that may be nostalgia. I had it as a kid and remember reading it when I was little, and then I read it to my kids. But when I read it to my kids, I realized how delightful the music and drama and character building is when you read it aloud. It’s amazing. It’s hard to find now, but if you want to borrow mine, or even better—ask me to read it to you—I’m down.

Happy Fall y’all.

Reading · Teaching

Layers like a cake, not like an onion: In Praise of Allegory

I love The Faerie Queene. There. I said it. I feel better.

I don’t have a horse in the Catholic/Protestant race, so I can read it without passion in that regard, but I do in the It’s All Connected race, and Spenser is ringing all my classical and medieval fangirl bells.

It’s a brilliant, sometimes hilarious compilation of previous works in service of a new narrative and a context where Spenser was interested in showing off his learning and skill. When I teach it, I scribble on the board an over-simplified equation that nonetheless helps students wrap their heads around it. Spenser uses classical epic conventions + medieval content + Protestant allegory to create the Faerie Queene.

I teach the third book (the story of Britomart, the knight of Chastity, and the only female knight) pretty regularly, but I haven’t had occasion to dive in to the rest of the book for many years.

It was right there waiting for me, as all the great books do.

Maybe that’s a definition of a classic—a text that waits for you, and when your crazy life lets you get back to it, it is every bit as delightful, surprising, and moving as it was when you first encountered it.

So the Faerie Queene….

Book I is the story of the Redcrosse Knight, the knight of Holiness. And it’s an allegory, right? So he IS holiness; he embodies holiness. But during the course of his quest, he is tested, he errs (literally!) from his path, and he needs to be rehabilitated; thus his faith is tempered. He is stronger than he was before.  

Redcrosse’s quest is to liberate Una’s (the One, True, i.e. Protestant Church) parents from the dragon.  But to focus on Redcrosse is to miss Una and her Perils of Pauline melodrama (or Penelope Pitstop, for 70s cartoon fans).

Una accompanies Redcrosse at the beginning, guiding him on his way (she knows where she lives; he doesn’t) and giving advice and encouragement. She’s lovely, really. And Holiness–in service to the One, True Church–defeats Error and her monstrous brood in the darkness of ignorance. So far, so good.

But even before the end of the first Canto, the wizard Archimago (Hypocrisy) sets deceptions in motion to raise doubts about Una’s virtue, and Redcrosse flees without her. Una wanders after him, alone and afraid, and in to her own adventures.

A lion tries to eat her. But as he gets close enough to see her, he is calmed and tamed by her… what… aura of goodness? Sure. He goes from wanting to eat her to giving his life to protect her; she’s that compelling a personage.

She is then claimed by Sans Loy (Lawlessness), who kills her lion and drags her off. She’s saved from him by a band of satrys, and saved from them by a mysterious half-satyr, half-human knight. It’s a little ridiculous, at least to a modern reader who can’t read Una among the satyrs as Princess Leia in the Ewok village.

And of course, Spenser is counting on his readers recognizing scenes, characters, and elements from other books like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and others. As a medievalist and a reader with a heavily annotated edition, those references are not lost on me, and there is a special pleasure in “getting the references” an author like Spenser drops. But what slays me is the pile of continued narratives since he wrote. My reading of The Faerie Queene is filled with moments of recognizing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marvel movies, Disney heroines, and countless other literary and pop culture references Spenser couldn’t have predicted but I can’t unsee.

Una will forever be the One, True Church, but also Princess Leia, Penelope Pitstop, even Eowyn the shield maiden from The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know if that would make Spenser spin in his grave, or if he’d think that all recognition was good recognition, but it sure makes for a delightful experience.

Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar
Reading · Teaching

Intro to Welsh: The Back to School edition

The school year has begun. It is not fall in Southern California by any measure but the academic calendar, but officially, fall semester has arrived. Kids are back in school, in air-conditioned classrooms one hopes, and my partner and I are swinging back in to a routine of lunches and carpools and homework and class preparation and grading.

But it’s August. Part of me is still offended.

Or it would be, if it weren’t so fun. It takes a couple days to figure out where classes meet and to put names to faces, and to move past the preliminaries of setting expectations and selling the class and yourself. For me the first week or two are always the most stressful, even though grading and responsibilities increase over the term.

In the first week I convince people to pay attention to me. I sell the class as important, useful, and fun. I sell myself as an authority but also as a person, because I know how much more pleasant a class is if you like your instructor. (This certainly does not always work, but I try. It’s a fine balance to hit—I’m kind of a dork, but an interesting, funny dork. If I push too far, they stop thinking I’m an interesting, funny anything, and all that’s left is the dork. This is impossible to come back from in my experience.)

When I’m teaching an English class, the odds are in my favor. I am largely surrounded by people who love books and have come there to talk about them. When I’m teaching a General Ed class, it varies.

This term I have mostly non-majors in my Folklore course. In the first week there has been a steady flow in and out of my class, as the prospect of all that reading and writing deters some people, or the dorkness proves insurmountable. People trickle in too, adding every day this week, not knowing what they’re in for.

Today I had enough laughing that I predict they will all stay.

We are reading the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of folklore contained in two manuscripts that people agree come hundreds of years after the tales had been circulating. The first hurdle is convincing people to care about medieval Welsh stories. The second hurdle is convincing people to read Welsh.

I don’t give them the text in Welsh, of course, but I do give them a crash course on pronouncing Welsh so they can read the names and places more easily. I’m trained as a linguist; I got this. I break down the names in to sounds and help them pronounce the ones non-native to English. But today just when they got comfortable with short, one or two-syllable names, and were feeling pretty good, I hit them with the YouTube video.

 There is a twenty-second video of a normal, respectable-looking weatherman doing his job that has over twenty million views because he effortlessly pronounces a Welsh town whose name is fifty-eight letters long. Of course he does. He’s from Cardiff. But it’s kind of amazing anyway.

So I sprung this on my students near the end of the language discussion. They were feeling good. They could pronounce Rhiannon with appropriate breathiness. They wrapped their mouths around the double d sounding like the beginning of ‘then.’ Then Liam Dutton commented about the weather in Llanfairpwyllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, and they lost it. And I had them.

I know it’s a gimmick. I know it’s cheap. But if it makes them laugh, builds a connection with their fellow students, challenges them to figure out how that word holds together, sparks a curiosity about the language that extends to the literature and culture, and gets me a little buy-in to a fairly kooky subject matter, I’ll take it.

And we’re off.  Happy Fall, y’all.

Reading · Teaching

The Modern Medieval Commentary

It’s summer, and I’m shaking things up again.

Fall semester is right around the corner, and I’m sitting here reading medieval commentaries and having Eureka! moments.

I regularly teach excerpts from Macrobius’s Commentary on The Dream of Scipio—the passages where he delineates the different kinds of true and false dreams one can have–and I’m wondering why it hasn’t occurred to me before that it’s a useful genre.

The medieval commentary tradition is a wonderful thing, really. There are many commentators like Macrobius—well-educated, well-intended, and busy saving the works of antiquity from oblivion. Macrobius uses the Roman orator Cicero’s text as a vehicle to collect or “compile” classical knowledge and package it for a Christian audience.

The text of the Dream of Scipio is included, of course, all eight pages of it, and then the Commentary of Macrobius adds upwards of 150 pages. It’s very medieval of him.

He collects other information in order to help explain the Dream. Scholars have spilt considerable ink deciding what texts he used as source material for which passages, but the point here is that he did. He used other texts to understand this one. He gathered outside information to clarify the context and associate the content with other, comparable texts. He isolated passages and looked closely at them, using all his faculties and all his resources to do justice to the subtleties of the text.

In short, he did literary criticism. But he did it in a medieval way.

Medieval authors valued authoritative texts. When I teach Chaucer, we talk about how he repurposed old tales for his Canterbury Tales rather than making things up ex nihilo. Originality meant going back to origins, not being novel. So a commentator would do that very important medieval writing task of compiling materials and putting them in conversation with one another to learn new truths. A compilator was not an auctor, an established authority and the root of our modern ”author,” but the job was vitally important nonetheless. A compiler made it possible for readers to gain fuller understanding of the auctor. A compiler opened doors, shone light, brought clarity, and most importantly, inspired the reader to deeper appreciation of the text.

This is where I’m headed in the fall.

I’m not going to make my students write hundred-page theses explaining flash fiction, but I am going to introduce them to the process and purpose and pleasure of the commentary.

In a modern classroom, a commentary may include annotations, summaries of parallel or illuminating texts, historical context, analysis of language and style, and may very well include illustrations or other visual elements. I’m thinking it will be a notebook devoted to a single text that students work on all term—an interactive account of their experience reading their chosen text.

I can already imagine them knocking my socks off.

Living · Reading

Learning to Love

At our most base and primitive, all we care about is ourselves—survival. We protect ourselves and our families, so the line will survive. We hoard. We fight. We resist others and fear them because they may take what we need to survive.

But the history of world civilization—and of mythology, literature, and religion—is the history of refuting those impulses, of raising us up to higher selves, of forming communities and cultures that enhance the lives of all. These help us to thrive, not just survive.

This is why so many cultures have a myth or parable about gods visiting humans in disguise: why The Odyssey is essentially a long disquisition on hospitality; why Odin and Thor visit Midgard and Jesus appears to poor people to test their generosity. Because even though the strong, animal instinct in us compels us to protect what we have and exclude others, the higher path, the path toward community and humanity, is helping others.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses¸ Zeus visits Lycaon and, disgusted by his behavior (Lycaon does not believe Zeus is a god and tries to feed him human flesh and plots his murder). Zeus’s reaction is to flood the world and kill off this undeserving race.  The lesson here is multiple, including an admonition to have faith in the gods, but how one demonstrates that faith is in being a good host. Lycaon should have fed his guest, offered him shelter, protected him—not tried to kill him.

Lycaon should have read The Odyssey.

Photo of children embracing their animal natures. In children, it’s ok. 🙂

In The Odyssey, Odysseus the Greek hero and king of Ithaka is trying to get home from the Trojan War. His journey is a return trip. The main action of the war has passed (see The Iliad), and all he’s trying to do is get back. Why? That’s not really as exciting a premise for a book as chronicling the cause and scope of a war. It’s not a meteoric rise to fame for a hero who fights a monster or saves a maiden. It’s a voyage. It’s full of scenes where Odysseus is welcomed or attacked, of examples of good hospitality and, for lack of a better phrase, bad hospitality. The Odyssey is about how to treat people, and ultimately about how to be human.

Odysseus fails with some regularity.

He starts out with a host of men. Some are eaten by Laestrygonians. Some are eaten by a cyclops. Some are eaten by Scylla, the flying monster with six heads who fills each of her six gullets with one of his men. You’re seeing a trend here, yeah? It’s not about the guys; they’re essentially pawns (“red shirts,” in Star Trek parlance). It’s about Odysseus learning to be a person who is worthy to rule when he gets back to Ithaka. Odysseus learns how to deal with all different kinds of humans and monsters. He stops all over the Aegean on his way back, and when he stops in lands governed by good kings, he is welcomed and feasted and encouraged to speak. When he stops at a monster’s house, his guys get eaten. Lesson? Anyone? Humans, at least good ones, welcome guests. They care for their fellow human beings. They give of their resources, knowing that if they are washed adrift, they’ll be able to count on being welcomed and sheltered and protected.

The Christian tradition (and others) shares these stories. In the Old Testament, God floods the world when people forget how to be good people. In the New Testament, we are reminded to show hospitality because some have “entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13.2). And then there is the story of Jesus visiting the shopkeeper in the guise of three poor people (Johnny Cash’s “The Christmas Guest,” which derives from Helen Steiner Rice’s version of a French folktale, probably).

It’s a common enough trope, though. The same scene begins Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, really. A powerful enchantress tests the young French lord, and when he fails to be gracious and generous to another human being, she punishes him by turning him in to a beast. He acted no better than an animal; his appearance should reflect his monstrosity.

Why do we have to keep telling this tale? Does each generation need to learn it for themselves? Are we still so ruled by fear of scarcity that we require acculturating over and over again?

Apparently.

Fortunately there is no shortage of material, ancient to contemporary, that we can read or watch or listen to in order to find this lesson. To quote a friend who has learned it very well, “We belong to each other.”

Reading · Teaching

The Return of the Verse Novel

People tell me all the time they don’t like poetry.

They don’t get it; they don’t see why it has to be so hard. They think it’s pretentious—you should just say what you mean, already; why torture your words in to form? They think it’s out to trick them and to make them feel inadequate. They’re on guard and defensive.

I think that’s all wrong.

I think poetry is just distilled language, in sharper focus, with the volume turned up–pick a sense. It’s true some of the writers I teach want to challenge their readers, but it’s not the poetry that challenges, generally; it’s the content. Dante is not dense because he writes in terza rima; he’s dense because we don’t know enough of his historical and political context to get all his references, nor enough of his religious context to grasp his spiritual claims in their fullness.

But man, the guy can sing.

So I’m on a perennial quest, every term, to break down walls in people’s minds and help them feel poetry. And lately I’ve discovered a tiny resurgence of a genre I was not expecting: the verse novel.

On our last trip to Solvang, my daughter and I each bought, without consulting the other, a verse novel. I don’t know about you, but I have very little experience with verse novels, and the one that comes first to mind is the quite forbidding. The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning is a 600-page whopper that I bought as an ambitious undergrad and left on my shelf. 21,000 lines of iambic pentameter had intimidated even me, the poetry lover.

But there is new hope. My daughter picked up a book that is sort of a biography in verse of Joan of Arc: Stephanie Hemphill’s The Language of Fire. And I bought a retelling of the Minotaur’s story called Bull: A Novel by David Elliott. Then she read mine and I read hers, both in a sitting.

These are novels told in verse, published in 2019 and 2017, respectively, and I thought also of Jane Yolen’s 2018 Finding Baba Yaga, and realized this might be a thing. If it is, let me just shout from the rooftops, Hurrah! Because all three of these are wonderful—lively revisionings of a well-known story spun in readable, small spurts of poems.

The poems are mostly free verse—the kind of poem that makes me wonder why the poet chose to break the lines there… or they would if I weren’t swept up in the narrative. Some of them are visually poetic, and by that I mean the very way the words are presented on the page is beautiful. Some of Yolen’s have very, very short lines—two syllables. Or they build from short to long lines and back. Or they intersperse voices in italics. Elliott’s have pages that get progressively darker as Asterion the Minotaur’s perspective darkens.

This is good stuff, y’all. This is poetry that lets you in. It may be my predilections that lead me toward the myths and fairy tales (Joan’s legendary status notwithstanding), but they seem perfect subjects for this medium. You already know the story, or think you should. (Yolen’s first poem, in fact, is entitled “You think you know this story.”) So the content is not going to be the problem, as in Dante’s case. This time through, you just get to enjoy the show.

But all three of these are marketed for the Young Adult audience, which means that many readers will not know the stories. If this is the first introduction to these stories, that’s good too. They are more expansive than the myths, more personal than a “real” biography, more psychologically vivid than a fairy tale.

But they also get to sing.

And if they’re selling, that means young people are getting exposed to old stories through poetry. It’s brilliant, of course. (It always has been.) The poems are short, moving briskly through the narrative, switching voices, clapping back—even making Hamilton references–and because there are simply fewer words on each page, you get the sense that you’re flying through the tale. And that helps skittish readers feel like they accomplished something, which they absolutely have.

I hope what they’ve done is hopped on the bandwagon to revive a wonderful form. I hope that means more will come to my classes with less fear of poetry and more sense of its potential.

Living · Reading · Writing

The Anti-Blog

I don’t really have anything to say today. I didn’t last week either, so I skipped a week, and I almost never skip weeks, so… you know… I’m here tonight. But I still don’t have anything, really.

What do I have?

I have some free time, having completed the draft of a paper whose deadline I just barely busted. Tuesday night is still “early in the week,” right?

I have some complicated feelings about Independence Day, since I’m grateful to live in a country that allows me to say how disappointed I am in us right now.

Grandma Isla loved dogwood and delicate things.

I have my grandma’s tea cups and her love of quiet, civilized time.

I have a really splendid family, who chose to celebrate our freedom by grilling hotdogs and playing a new board game. My partner got to use his firepit, and the girly made a monster fruit salad.

I have arthritis in my feet. Who knew? So I have some new foods in my diet and am cutting down on others, to do what I can to slow its advance.

I have some fear, but mostly hope for our future as a country and as a planet. I have a well-developed sense of wonder at the beauty of the world and the ingenuity of people who screw it up, but also rally to fix it.  

I have enough stamps that I can pick and choose from a variety of sets and materials and get more use out of them than they’re marketed for. And I have a partner who likes to see me happy, so encourages my hobby rather than complaining that it’s too expensive.

I have “Dirty Little Secret” stuck in my head. It’s my daughter’s fault. It’s on her playlist.

 I have a daughter who plays music while she tidies the kitchen.

I have lots of memories of fireworks and parks and watermelon and parades and my parents from my happy childhood. I have some holes in my heart where people like my parents have taken little bits of me in to the beyond.

I have a stack of academic books to be returned to various libraries, some classes to plan, a letter of recommendation to write, some portfolios to assess, and a fall schedule to tidy up… next week.

And I have a cat walking across my desk, telling me to wrap this up and pet her already.

If you’re still reading, I wish you a wonderful evening, a heart full of hope, and enough of whatever makes you happy.

Lucie is over my non-blog.
Living · Picture Books · Reading

Idylls of the Introverts–a summer tradition

A Tree Grows in Solvang

When my son was ten, he and my partner played a tabletop fantasy game called Warhammer 40K. This involved lots of painting of tiny soldiers and model tanks and buildings, and it sort of peaked when they found out there was a convention in Chicago. At first, my eight year old daughter and I thought we’d go too, but we also thought it sounded like watching movies in a foreign language about subjects that don’t interest you. So we passed and decided to think of our own thing.

I had always wanted to go to Solvang, a little tourist town in the Santa Barbara wine country with Danish roots (and therefore bakeries). There was even a Hans Christian Andersen museum.

As a Girly Getaway, it had loads of potential.

I made a reservation at a Bed and Breakfast with a fairy tale theme, and we got a room filled with Danish lace and paintings of swans and princesses. It was perfect. We bought Dala horses and ate abelskivers, the little spherical pancakes drizzled in raspberry sauce, and we decided this was our thing.

And that was before we discovered the bookshop.

The bookshop is what kept us going. The Book Loft is a lovely, independent bookstore with used and new books and the best Fairy Tales and Folklore collection I’ve ever seen.  We each bought an armload of books, and we headed across the street to the park to examine our haul. We read under a tree all afternoon.

Since then we have done largely the same thing every summer. We love the little town, but if we’re honest, we go for the books. It’s a perfect destination for us, although neither of the boys understand.

We chat all the way there and back, and if it were a trip with girlfriends, we probably would buy wine and keep chatting. It’s not.

It’s with my favorite bookworm, and we spend a considerable chunk of our time sitting next to each other companionably and reading. We stop to read each other funny passages or show a picture or summarize a great story. We are geeks. When she was eight, I was already buying more picture books than she was. She was reading children’s fantasy novels, and I was collecting picture books and new versions of fairy tales.

Now she’s a teenager, and she reads YA fantasy novels. I’m still collecting fairy tales. This year I got a couple collections with an eye to adopting one for my folklore syllabus in the fall. But the first thing I did was read one of her books—a verse novel about Joan of Arc. And she read a collection of graphic novel-style fairy tales I’d picked out to stay current. That’s right. We both sat there and read a whole book under that tree before one of us had to go to the bathroom.

Book Haul 2019

Several things stand out about this to me (or they did, when our hotel smoke alarm went off and the front desk guy came in to turn it off and saw our giant stack of books strewn across the bed and looked at us like that was one thing he’d never seen when he entered someone’s hotel room at night.) Maybe this is weird. Maybe the fact that we essentially make a two-day bookstore run every year is weird. Maybe that we take a vacation together but don’t talk half the time is weird. Maybe the fact that we’re happy doing essentially the same thing, eating at the same restaurants, and that we go to the fudge shop the first night for us and on the way home for the boys, since we can’t be trusted not to eat theirs is weird. (That seems least weird to me of this list, frankly.)

But the fact is some day she’s going to be 21, and even though people have been recommending wine to her there since she was 13, she will someday take them up on it, and the dynamic will change.

I tried to shake things up a few years with different locations or (gasp!) restaurants, but she has always been somewhere between reluctant and outraged. I have pushed her to all the local museums and the ostrich farm, with the tacit understanding that we should probably know more of the area than the park and the bookstore, but really, what makes us happy is the quiet time leaning against each other under our tree, comparing this year’s books to last year’s, and chatting with the shop workers and servers who only see us once a year, but remember us anyway. Some comment on how much she’s grown, like the server who remembers her back when she wore Crocs with gibbitz in them and clapped at the Red Viking because they served her milk in a pilsner glass.

The secret to happiness is indulging your inner geek. Especially with someone who high fives you for it.

Reading

I used to be a medievalist.

I’m still a medievalist, of course, but in the years between grad school, where I wrote a master’s thesis on Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand and a doctoral dissertation on the scribes of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, I have not done the kind of manuscript study or textual analysis that I did in these works, much less kept up my reading facility in Old Saxon.

Actual evidence that I could translate Old English in grad school.

I am a generalist. I teach poetry from Homer to the 18th century, and I also teach a seminar on a 20th century Italian novelist. I guess it was bound to happen.

But it’s also a series of choices.

I have, in working toward tenure and promotion, done more research about the act of teaching than about the content I teach. That’s fine. Teaching is vitally important to me, and I do not regret that work. Also, I have never stopped wanting to read more, learn more, and broaden my scope. It’s why I chose Medieval Studies, as opposed to a smaller, more focused field. Some people make a whole career out of a single author. I have never been able to choose just one. (This holds for cookies too–and other things–if one kind is good, isn’t five a whole lot better?)

But I opened up my thesis the other day, and reading through my translation of the Old Saxon gospel and my argument about how the language was developing in relation to its other Germanic sibling languages, and the impact of that on our understanding of that text made me long to wander back to manuscripts and lay aside my anthologies for a bit.

Old English and Old Saxon texts minus the sweat, tears, and graphite.

There is a different kind of pleasure in encountering an ancient text in its original language. This was my job throughout most of graduate school, and if there is one thing I miss about that kind of study, it’s the language. To read The Heliand at that time meant calling up all my Old English and Old Norse knowledge and triangulating to deduce meaning in the Old Saxon. Otherwise it’s Dictionary City, and you look up every word. But if you’ve met Beowulf in an Anglo-Saxon bar, and watched Thor bash giants in Old Norse, Jesus’s life is pretty easy to follow in Old Saxon.

They warned me. My Anglo-Saxon professor said to relish our Beowulf reading, because that seminar was likely the only time we’d read the whole thing in the original. He was right. I look at excerpts to critique translations. I show my students a page or two, but never the whole thing. It’s not appropriate or practical in a sophomore level survey of British Lit.

But I miss it.

So diving back in a bit has been a joy. Not the deadline for this paper I’m writing, but the sitting and reading the stories again, and the language. Hearing the sounds of the long dead languages as I roll them around in my mouth and realizing I can still read them. Because the pleasure of a medievalist is to study languages for reading ability without the pressure of having to produce intelligible Old Saxon on my own. I don’t need conversation skills, just reading skills. And those skills have not diminished in my absence from the manuscript rooms.

Beowulf is still fierce and cocky (ӕglӕca); the Danish queen is still decorously smacking him down, telling him not to push his luck. Peter is still a badass; Jesus still is a powerful lord (mahtig drohtin), trying to rein him in. For my money Game of Thrones has nothing on these stories.

Maybe I’ll pursue this kind of work again seriously, but if I don’t, it’s nice to know I can still enjoy the experience of reading these “olde bokes,” as Chaucer called them. That’s what I was after all those years ago anyway.

Happy summer, everyone. May you find time for all the weird little things that make your heart happy. I’ll keep my nerd flag high, so you’ll know where to find me.